Ben Tripp’s YA book, The Accidental Highwayman: Being the Tale of Kit Bristol, His Horse Midnight, a Mysterious Princess, and Sundry Magical Persons Besides, is the first in a series, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
It tells the story of Kit Bristol, an orphan and circus performer who has become a valet to a mysterious gentleman. He quickly learns that his employer is none other than Whistling Jack, a notorious highwayman with a bounty on his head. After Whistling Jack is mortally wounded, Kit is mistaken for him and flees for his life. He finds that he has been charged with completing a task that Whistling Jack left undone: to rescue Princess Morgana from the clutches of her father, the King of Faerie, who has planned to marry Morgana off to Prince George of England. After he rescues her, the two of them set off on a madcap journey around England, with a young acrobat and her mad uncle, two fairies, and a horse in tow.
As you can probably guess from the summary, The Accidental Highwayman is action-packed. Kit and Morgana and their friends are not only pursued by her father, but also by the Duchess of the Red Seas (another faerie enemy) and by Captain Sterne, a soldier who is determined to bring Whistling Jack to justice. But there’s a fair bit of silliness, too; it has been compared to William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, and the comparison is apt. There are a lot of over-the-top characters and funny, tongue-in-cheek dialogue. The two faeries, Willum and Gruntle, have lots of moments in which they misunderstand human culture or try to educate Kit on fairie culture. The acrobat, Lily, is a caricature of a lovesick girl always mooning about after a different boy. Her uncle Cornelius has lost his wits and believes that he is still on a circus tour visiting the crown princes of Europe.
The main character, Kit, is very likeable. He’s a teenage boy thrown into dangerous circumstances beyond his control who still manages to spend most of his time being confused by a girl. The reader will quickly see that Kit is in love with Morgana but, having never been in love before, Kit doesn’t know that himself. His alternating feelings of admiration and annoyance ring true as the pangs of first love. Morgana herself may not be all that likeable, but she is memorable. Haughty and high-spirited, she is a typical princess on the run, learning the ways of the world and being humbled along the way. She sort of reminded me of Princess Vespa from Spaceballs.
Tripp’s tone in The Accidental Highwayman is as much a pleasure as the plot and characters. As the first person narrator, Kit gets to drop little epigrams like “Forgive my pride: Respectability is like wine. It goes straight to the head of one who hasn’t had it before.” Since the story is set in the eighteenth century, Tripp uses this opportunity to introduce a lot of really fun vocabulary. Words like “kippage” and “scurfed,” and phrases like “thou ventricose fustilarian” are used and then glossed in footnotes (which is probably what garnered the comparison to Goldman). Tripp also introduces readers to historical figures like Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Herring of Canterbury, and the prince who will become Mad King George.
The biggest problem I had with the book was that it was a little rough around the edges. Some of the things the fairies say don’t make sense; they seem very easily angered and emotional. Of course, that might be to be expected of fairies. The final villain, the Duchess of Red Sea, seems really interesting but we didn’t get to see a lot of her. Her appearance was suddenly begun and abruptly over. And I had to read the ending three times before I understood some of the particulars, such as how Kit’s horse had magically become a Pegasus.
Despite these growing pains, I am certainly looking forward to the next one, rooting for Kit as he searches again for Morgana, and rooting for Tripp as he shows us more of the Faerie realm.